Jan 11, 2024 - News

Phoenix urges against DOJ police department consent decree

A man stands at a podium next to an American flag and in front of a large Department of Justice seal.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland announces the federal investigation in 2021. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

The Phoenix Police Department wants the U.S. Department of Justice to let it pursue reforms without seeking to impose a consent decree that would require extensive monitoring.

Catch up quick: The DOJ launched an investigation of PPD in 2021 in response to allegations of excessive force, discriminatory practices, retaliation against protesters, unlawful seizure of homeless people's belongings and mistreatment of individuals with mental health issues.

Driving the news: In a Thursday letter to the DOJ's Civil Rights Division, Michael Bromwich, an attorney for the city, asks the feds to forgo a consent decree and instead issue a "technical assistance letter," in which the DOJ would make observations about what its investigation found and make recommendations about proposed reforms. But the DOJ would impose no mandates and task PPD with implementing its own reforms, the Arizona Republic reported.

State of play: Consent decrees are "lengthy, complicated, and expensive," Bromwich wrote, adding it would involve not just PPD and the DOJ, but a federal judge and a monitoring team.

  • He noted in the past, the DOJ has resolved such investigations with technical assistance letters, which the agency "abruptly discontinued" in 2012 after 11 years of regular use, and memoranda of agreement that require monitors, but not judges.

Between the lines: The city included with the letter a 53-page report outlining reforms PPD has implemented in recent years, including updates to use-of-force policies, increased tracking and review of drawn firearm incidents by officers, and a review of policies and practices regarding the treatment of protesters, an area where the department acknowledged it's "at times, fallen short."

  • Reforms implemented by interim chief Michael Sullivan, appointed in August 2022, "have touched nearly every aspect of the operations implicated by the DOJ investigation," Bromwich wrote.

Zoom in: Bromwich, in his letter, accused the DOJ of a lack of transparency during the 29-month investigation.

  • The DOJ's stated refusal to share findings with the city before they're released publicly leaves Phoenix without the ability to respond or demonstrate its reforms could address any issues, he said.
  • The investigation appears to be winding down, Bromwich said, but the DOJ hasn't specified when it will conclude.

What's next: If the DOJ insists on a consent decree and Phoenix refuses to adhere to it, that could trigger a major legal battle between the city and the feds.

  • Unions for Phoenix police, firefighters and other employees last month urged Mayor Kate Gallego to stop cooperating with the investigation and reject any federal oversight.

Of note: After a federal investigation found a pattern of discriminatory policing against Latinos, unlawful stops and arrests, and retaliation against critics, then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio rejected a proposed consent decree, leading to a DOJ lawsuit and the appointment of a monitor to oversee the agency.

  • Attorneys for the county recently spoke at a Phoenix City Council subcommittee meeting to discuss the city's options.
  • One attorney said Phoenix would have a seat at the table in crafting a consent decree, while rejecting one could lead to court orders that have less flexibility.

The other side: The DOJ declined to comment to Axios.

Meanwhile, Jared Keenan, legal director for the ACLU of Arizona, called the letter a PR stunt intended to preempt "what is almost certainly going to be a very bad report for the Phoenix Police Department," and said the report was a "whitewashed" attempt to downplay serious problems at PPD.

  • Keenan dismissed the idea that the DOJ should allow PPD to fix its problem independently, telling Axios Phoenix it's long past the point when the department should've done so.
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